Sunday’s New York Times Book Review featured Tom Perrotta’s review of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather on the front page. Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop is one of my favorites, so I was interested right away. Perrotta quotes an irresistible line from one of Cather’s letters describing the prairie: “The whole great wheat country fairly glows, and you can smell the ripe wheat as if it were bread baking” As soon as I finished reading the review, I was off the couch and heading for the bookcase where I knew my copy of My Antonia waited. Although I’d had it for ages, I’d never read this book. No time like the present.
I was immediately drawn into the story of Antonia’s immigrant family as told by her friend and neighbor, Jim Burden. Everything about the prairie is new to Jim, and Cather’s language transports us there. “The light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left,” Jim declares as he explores his new home for the first time.
As I read, another book came whispering to me on that prairie wind. Ann Turner’s Dakota Dugout (Macmillan, 1985) is the story of a young couple trying to build a life in a sod home near the end of the 19th century. Told as a flashback from the wife’s point of view, Turner’s poetic text gives the reader an insight into a way of life few of us today can imagine. At the end of the book, the narrator tells her listener “talking brings it near again, the sweet taste of new bread in a Dakota dugout, how the grass whispered like an old friend, how the earth kept us warm.” The echoes of Cather’s letter are striking, aren’t they?
I have used Dakota Dugout with fourth graders in the past to teach a number of reading strategies. It is a challenging text, but a worthy choice, as it is rich with details about a region of the country most of the students in my New England community have never experienced. Thinking about this book in light of the CCSS, the possibilities seem endless.
Reading Literature standards 1-3 could easily be taught using Dakota Dugout. Turner’s language makes this book a good choice for addressing the Language standards related to vocabulary (4-6) as well as Reading Literature standard 4, “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text…”
Teaching with primary sources isn’t something we’ve done a lot of in fourth grade, but because there are so many pioneer letters and diaries available, it makes sense to pair some of these with Dakota Dugout. Reading Informational Text standard 6 states that students should “Compare and contrast a firsthand and secondhand account of the same event or topic; describe the differences in focus and the information provided.” The Library of Congress has a remarkable collection, Prairie Settlement: Nebraska Letters & Family Photographs, that are a perfect complement to this book. There is even a Standards alignment chart available. The National Museum of American History also has resources to use with Dakota Dugout, including an online sod house building simulation.
The pioneers who settled the Great Plains are gone. But their spirit lives on in Willa Cather’s novels, scores of letters and diaries, and in books like Dakota Dugout. Through them we can “Tell you about the prairie years? I’ll tell you, child, how it was.”